The South Lawn Project

New plans honor Jeffersonian architecture and interpret it for the 21st century.

By Staff Writers
This is an image of the South Lawn

Site plan and landscape concept, South Lawn Project, phase 1.
© 2006 Office of Cheryl Barton

The long-anticipated schematic drawings for the first phase of the South Lawn Project — a set of buildings that are designed to accommodate the contemporary needs of the College while paying tribute to Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village nearby — have been approved by the University’s Board of Visitors.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” Dean Edward L. Ayers told board members. “The project gathers depth and meaning the more we think about it.”

The landmark $105 million project will extend the axis of Thomas Jefferson’s original Lawn across Jefferson Park Avenue and will reinforce the atmosphere of community that characterizes the U.Va. undergraduate experience. The design was created by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners of Santa Monica, Calif., the firm chosen by the Board of Visitors in 2005 to design the project.

The project’s price tag includes construction, landscaping, parking, digital information systems, furnishings and equipment. Funding is divided between $43.8 million from University sources and $61.2 from private philanthropy. A total of $29 million in gifts has been received; at least $45 million in commitments is required before the University can break ground.

Jeffersonian inspiration

“The charge presented to the design team,” said David J. Neuman, architect for the University, “was to seek inspiration from the composition of Jefferson’s original Lawn, including the character and scale of its landscape and architecture, without resorting to imitation.”

Neuman, who presented the design to the board, called it “interpretative, not imitative.”

The project includes classrooms equipped with the latest technology, gathering areas, flexible workspaces and faculty offices organized to foster collaboration. The schematic design features two parallel wings of academic buildings that establish an east-west sequence. These buildings link the College to the adjacent Foster family historic site — the home site of a free black woman, Catherine Foster, who lived there in the 19th century — and the nearby Medical Center. Between the buildings is a courtyard reminiscent of the pavilion gardens adjacent to the Lawn. A circular commons building with gathering spaces and a 250-seat lecture hall sits at the head of the courtyard.

Plans for pedestrians

The design also calls for a pedestrian terrace, a football-field-size panel of lawn that will span Jefferson Park Avenue (JPA), continuing the grid of the Central Grounds and unifying old and new University functions. The South Lawn addresses pedestrian and vehicular movement on JPA in terms of safety, accessibility and image, by paying attention to the character of the space below the crossing as well. On all sides of the South Lawn building complex, multiple pedestrian routes lead to interior and exterior stairs ascending to the terrace in order to direct as much pedestrian traffic as possible onto the terrace itself.

The terminus of the South Lawn Terrace is a circular plaza with an overlook that recaptures the historic view of the ridgeline leading to Monticello, Jefferson’s home. On the west side of this vista point, an exterior stair sweeps down to gardens below. The commons building below houses a café and a digital resource center in addition to the lecture hall; a three-story glass wall on its east face is framed by two porches that serve as entrances to perpendicular wings of buildings, which will house the College’s programs in history, religious studies and politics.

The centerpiece of the plaza will be a large round fountain that will provide a visual and physical anchor to the end of the terrace and will echo the shapes of the Rotunda and the back of Old Cabell Hall.

Landscape design

Landscaping for the project includes a simple system of walls, water retention gardens and other details that both reinterpret and blend with existing site conditions. The terrace across JPA is a formal expanse of lawn floating through adjacent trees and topography; it will be edged with an eight-foot hedge punctuated by “windows” to elicit the feeling of an outdoor room. Moore Ruble Yudell is working in conjunction with landscape architects Cheryl Barton and Walter Hood, as well as other consultants selected by the University.

The project’s context

The challenge of the project’s context prompted varying opinions about how to honor the Jeffersonian architecture, said Neuman. “We have been very conscious of trying to listen. We tried to decipher what Mr. Jefferson was doing” and looked at ways his ideas could be carried over — in roof slope and materials, for example.

U.Va. President John T. Casteen III said, “We have wrestled with every conceivable issue,” adding that the original site of the University probably posed problems of its own. “The sheer intellectual work that has gone into this is impressive.”

Catherine Neale (History, American Studies ’06), the outgoing student member of the board, said she has been looking at plans for a South Lawn Project since she was a first-year student. “I’ve got to say that this is amazing.” Anne Elizabeth Mullen (American Studies ’07), the incoming student member, praised the project’s approach to faculty-student interaction. “When I think about the spirit of the Lawn … I think they’ve really achieved that goal,” she said.

John Ruble (Architecture ’69), who leads the project’s design team as partner-in-charge, said that his interest in the South Lawn goes back to his years as an undergraduate student. “The Lawn is a brilliant statement of the place of community in an academic setting. Among our highest goals would be the shaping of such a community — providing the kind of continuity, connectivity and identity that would sustain Mr. Jefferson’s vision in a new century.”

“We want it to look and work well when it opens,” Neuman said, “but on its 100th anniversary we want people to say we did a good job.”

Read other South Lawn articles and view new architectural renderings.